Sending out an SOS: Russian satellites come to the rescue

MOSCOW. (Yury Zaitsev for RIA Novosti) - Thirty years ago the Soviet government issued a resolution on setting up a space-based system to search for ships in distress (known by its initials in Russian, KOSPAS) anywhere in the world.

The quick location of such ships reduced by nearly tenfold the time of rescue operations in comparison with the usual methods and also reduced the risk of accidents involving rescue ships and aircraft themselves. For Russia, with its vast, sparsely populated areas and enormous expanses of ocean, creating an effective search-and-rescue system was of significant importance both socially and economically.

In official documents the system was called Nadezhda, which means "hope" in Russian, as were the satellites that made up its space segment. Their design was based on satellites from the Tsikada national navigation system. KOSPAS was set up as an independent national system, but was created simultaneously with a similar American-Canadian-French system called Search And Rescue Satellite -Aided Tracking, or SARSAT. The two sides cooperated closely to guarantee their technical compatibility.

The first satellite of the Soviet system, Kosmos 1383, was launched in 1982 (a group of Canadians was saved with its help the same year), while the first SARSAT satellite was launched in 1983. In 1984 KOSPAS was put into test operation and in 1987 into full-time operation in the U.S.S.R.

In 1988, at the Soviets' initiative, an intergovernmental agreement was signed by the Soviet Union, the United States, Canada and France on cooperation in the use of the KOSPAS-SARSAT system in the interests of the whole international community. The agreement had a duration of 15 years, with the possibility of further periodic extensions for 5 years. Today 36 countries have officially joined the system, including the four countries which signed the agreement on the international status of the system and maintain its space-based segment.

The main scientific and technical concept of the space-based search-and-rescue system involves the use of several satellites (at least 4 put into a near-polar orbit at altitudes of between 800 and 1000 kilometers) equipped with radio devices to detect distress signals from transmitters installed on ships and aircraft. The satellites circle the Earth approximately every 100 minutes and can observe an area of about 5,000 kilometers in diameter. Distress transmitters are switched on automatically in case of accident or, they can be turned on manually. The signal is then relayed by satellite to an information processing station on Earth. Information about the signal's location is sent to national control centers - in Russia it goes to the International Computing Center - where it is analyzed and passed on to the relevant search-and-rescue service.

KOSPAS receives signals from two types of distress transmitters. The first type is the ARB-121, an SOS transmitter in use since the 1970s, which operates on a frequency of 121.5 MHz. The second type is the ARB-406, which was specially designed for the KOSPAS and works on a frequency of 406 MHz. They send radio signals once every 50 seconds with obligatory information about the country that owns the transmitter and the object in distress. The likelihood of locating an ARB-406 during the first passing of the satellite through the transmitter's visibility area is almost 100 percent.

Russia, in accordance with its obligations on maintaining the space-based and ground-based segments of the KOSPAS-SORSAT system, will guarantee the functioning of at least two satellites and three ground-based information-receipt and-processing centers, as well as one coordination and computing center.

For the past several years, upgraded Nadezhda-M satellites have been used. In 2000, a draft project was approved by the Rosaviakosmos Russian space agency for a new generation KOSPAS rocket space complex based on a small satellite, the Sterkh. Serial production is underway of radio beacons for aircraft and helicopters, as well as for rescuers, geologists, tourists - in short, anyone who might find himself in a remote place in an emergency situation. These radio beacons transmit emergency signals and information about their location received from the GPS-GLONASS systems, among other sources. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov may have implied as much when he said that the national GLONASS program, which is being resumed, will make it possible to find even lost children and dogs. More than 17,000 people across the world have been saved over the past 25 years thanks to the KOSPAS-SARSAT system. On average 100 people are added to the list every month.

Russia, as the successor to the Soviet Union in the KOSPAS-SARSAT international agreement, has been successfully fulfilling its obligations related to using and developing both the space-based and ground-based segments of the system, though so far it has failed to make effective use of it. As a matter of fact, the situation is similar to the one that has been going on for years with GLONASS: the space-based segment of the system was fully completed back in 1995, though little attention has been paid to supplying customers with the necessary equipment.

At present there are nearly 660,000 distress transmitters using a frequency of 121.5 MHz and nearly 285,000 transmitters using a frequency of 406 MHz. However, there are only several dozen Russian aircraft equipped with such radio beacons, and only in the past few years has the number climbed into the hundreds. As before, if an aircraft or helicopter crashes in the taiga or the tundra, it can't be found for months.

After the terrorist attacks on a Tupolev-134 and a Tupolev-154 airliners a few years ago, the Russian Ministry of Transportation issued a decree mandating all aircraft and helicopters to be supplied with KOSPAS-SARSAT radio beacons. Regrettably, there has been little progress so far.

No information is available on the number of personal radio beacons used by Russians. This is despite the fact that the system was Russia's idea in the first place and is considered a priority by other space powers that joined the program much later than it did.

Yury Zaitsev is an expert with the Russian Academy of Sciences' Institute of Space Research.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not necessarily represent the opinions of the editorial board.

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